The Teacher's Reward

July 12, 1994|By GWYNETH B. HOWARD

I have been teaching in various venues long enough to have what appear to be very mature men and women sidle up to me in public places and say, ''Mrs. Howard, remember me? I was in your English class at [fill in the school].'' And then introduce me to their children.

Of course, I don't often remember the adults claiming to know me, because an adult resembles the past teen-ager the way the chick resembles the future hen or rooster. When they identify themselves, I usually remember who they were. And I occasionally wonder, when I meet individuals who claim I taught them, ''Am I about to reap the reward for my long years in the classroom? Is this long-ago student going to wring my hand and thank me profusely for those sonnet explications? Bless me for those masterful delineations of semi-comal subtlety?''

Usually I get the impression that I am being shown a specimen who achieved success in spite of my tender ministrations and not because of them.

Recently, I was coming out of my local beverage vendor, holding my brown paper bag, containing a bottle of fine expensive beverage, when a voice behind me called out the familiar, ''Mrs. Howard, remember me? I'm little Billy Butler [name changed] and you taught me at [fill in the school].''

I turned around. There by the door was a kind cipher: ageless, wild red hair down to his shoulders, chip-toothed, and grinning up at me, standing on the steps above him. He was clutching the brother to my brown paper beverage bag in his arms.

''Well,'' I said, ''you certainly look familiar.''

These are the opening words in a ritual of exchanged civilities between former student and teacher that go back at least to Plato and the studious Polemarchus. ''Hey Mr. Plato, remember me? I'm Poly, the one who hassled you about the Cave thing. In your fourth-period Republic class, remember?''

And claiming that the face is familiar is not always a lie. Sometimes the shadow of the child I taught does fall over the face of the adult, though usually it doesn't.

In any case, there we were, facing each other over our shared past and evaluating our progress against each other.

''I see you're in the paper from time to time, giving out awards and such things.'' the adult ''Billy Butler'' said.

''Yes, I am,'' I admitted.

''Well, I've been having some troubles since I got out of high school,'' my former student went on, ''I got into a bad drug habit. Crack cocaine.''

And I thought, ''Is this former student going to blame his education for his problems?'' It was an oddity that I had never before encountered.

''Ah,'' I said stiffly, acutely conscious of the fact that this encounter was taking place over mutual brown paper bags in front of a beverage store at which we were both probably regular customers.'' I'm very sorry to hear that. That's a terrible drug. And, I understand. a difficult addiction to cure.''

''Yes, it is.'' he returned, still smiling. ''But it felt real good before it got real bad. . . . And you know you don't appreciate the sky so much until you're lying in the gutter looking up at it.'' He said, nodding his head at me. Then he added, ''That's a metaphor I thought you might enjoy.''

''Why yes,'' I said, startled into laughter, ''I do enjoy a little metaphor from time to time.''

As we went our separate ways, I was stunned by the realization that here at last was a student who clearly remembered his lessons. Not only as subjects for class discussion and exposition, this student had discovered that it is also for those moments in the gutter that remembered poetry can lift us up.

And I cherished my former student's reference to a poetic epiphany, for there was ''thanks'' in that ''metaphor.'' Gwyneth B. Howard writes from Darlington.

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